Sunday 29 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In my hand I am holding a small plate made of clay. It looks rustic, tough, and it is rough around the edges but I love it. It’s one of my favourite plates in our household. Inside this plate there is a cookie. A massive, gigantic, solid, chunky, mouth-watering cookie. This cookie is not just a cookie. This is a Rocky Bun. This is a Rocky Bun bearing the name Emma’s Country Cakes.

Like the Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez whose favourite pastime apparently is to bite opponents on the football pitch, I, too, look forward to the moment when my teeth will sink into this solid mass of wheat flour, baking powder, sugar, margarine, vegetable oil, water, salt, egg powder, milk, mixed spice and sultanas. My mouth opens and...

The cookie crumbles.

The cookie. Crumbles. The massive, gigantic, solid-looking Rocky Bun crumbles and I’m left with little, middle and ring fingers holding the plate whilst forefinger and thumb keep the cookie from disintegrating totally. In my right hand I am holding a copy of the latest issue of Intelligent Life. To make it easier for you, readers and fellow bloggers, to understand what has just happened I will use the same example I used before. Imagine if Chiellini’s shoulder had dissolved entirely as Luis Suárez’ gnashers came into contact with it. There, I bet you have a better picture now. If only it were that easy to convince my erstwhile idol Diego Maradona of Luis’s excesses. But, alas, one can only hope so much!

Back to you, Emma. I wasn’t anticipating this. The reason why I chose your cookie was that it looked like the perfect companion for a leisurely Saturday evening sitting in front of the telly in between World Cup fixtures. Instead I have now crumbs all over my lap.

I know what you’re all thinking. Isis is advancing towards Baghdad in Iraq, they still haven’t found that missing plane in Malaysia, Asad is still holding onto power in Syria and the Ukraine-Russia stand-off shows no signs of abating. And yet, here is this idiot moaning about the consistency of a cookie. Goodness gracious me!

Let me come clear and say that it’s not Emma’s fault or her delicious, scrumptious cookies (yes, I ate it all and had “accidentally” my son’s as well. It’s all right, he doesn’t read my blog). It turns out I have been suffering from an “artisan” epidemic, a phenomenon brilliantly described by the writer Anthony Gardner in the latest issue of IntelligentLife.

In Anthony’s case it was the discovery of an artisan bakery in his north-west London patch that made him ponder over what he terms “Shoreditch-ification”, after the east London area that has come to symbolise hipster culture.

Craft or con?
Anthony traces the etymology of artisan and artisanal back to the 15th century. Originally from French, “artisan”, like its predecessors “ethnic” and “organic”, has come to represent a degree of sophistication that separates rather than unites. It’s not just the fact that my taste is more developed than yours (after all my loaf of bread costs three quid upwards), but my purchasing power is bigger. The irony is that we had an economic crisis only four years ago. Have we recovered that quickly?

The raison d’être of this renascent artisan culture (customised artisan bikes, for Christ’s sake, costing more than a thousand pounds) can be explained and seen through the prism of its diametric opposition to a market relying on mass-produced, soulless, nameless, sweatshop-dependent products. In a world of identikit merchandise some of us want our cakes to stand out. Hence Emma’s message to her followers:  I was a farm milk maid who had a dream of owning a business. With no money or business plan I began with a mixing bowl and wooden spoon in a tiny cottage using recipes from my childhood days on the farm. Years later we’re in a bakery with no conveyor belts or robots but lots of people making good old fashioned cakes.

The key words here are “childhood” and “old fashioned”. We’ve come round full circle. We might have iPads and smartphones but hanker for that touch of innocence that permeated our early years. The result is an industry that caters to our most individual whims whilst charging premium rates. As Anthony Gardner writes in his article of artisan shops, “Many other users of the word seem motivated less by high ideals than by the desire to jump on a lucrative bandwagon”. To sum up, the motivation might be noble, but the outcome is market-driven.

Personally, I don’t mind it that much. As I have often written on this blog, we, consumers, do have a choice. I want a new bike but you won’t see me paging through the pages of an artisan bike shop’s brochure because what they offer is out of my purchasing power. I love bread, homemade bread, bread made with a high degree of skilled labour, but I don’t see the need to pay three quid for a loaf.

As for Emma Country Cakes, guess where we buy them? Tescos’, or is it Asda? I've forgotten now. Yet, amidst so much sameness, they stand out. Her Rocky Buns might crumble whenever I do a Luis Suárez on them, but her Vanilla Fairies are to die for. And they are a bit more solid.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

Normally I use this section to post recipes by the likes of Nigel Slater and Yotam Ottolenghi. Tonight I'm competing against them. The photo you see above is of a dish I have been cooking every Friday evening for the last few weeks. It's spicy lamb with rice. What I love about this recipe is how simple and filling it is. I have my own method and, obviously, if you are a veggie, I recommend an alternative, like Linda McCartney sausages. In fact, my next instalment of Food, Music, Food, Music, Food Music... Ad Infinitum, will be of a vegetarian sausage hotpot. Again, I will add my own twist.

With this spicy lamb, what I do first is marinate the meat. I leave it overnight with mashed garlic, plenty of black pepper, salt and chopped up red, hot mixed chillies (I also leave one or two chillies unseeded to give the recipe that extra hotness. What I like doing as well is mashing the garlic and chillies together so as to make a lumpy mix). Brown some onions on the pan. Add in oregano, mixed herbs, cumin, coriander, turmeric and a couple of bay leaves and toss most of the chillies and garlic onto the hot pan. The garlic and chillies will cook faster than the other ingredients so make sure you put the meat in before they burn. I buy diced lamb because it cooks better and evenly. I let it stew in its own juice, stirring it every couple of minutes or so. As readers of this section know I am an advocate of slow cooking and this recipe is no exception, Make sure that the meat is nice and tender. Then, when the gravy begins to dry up a bit, add in the rice. The way I have been cooking rice for the last year or so is the Cuban way which makes the grain loose and soft. I use a small wine glass to measure the amount of rice to be cooked. The important thing is to use exactly the same amount of water, too. So, three quarters of a wine glass (for one person) correspond to three quarters of water. I turned the heat down (number one or two if you have an electric cooker) and let the rice cook until it absorbs all the water. The result? See above again. My Friday evening dinner.

The music I have selected for tonight's section is in tandem with a very important tournament taking place now. No, not Wimbledon, my dear friend, but the Football World Cup in Brazil. So, we start with the Southamerican giant and a timeless number. I hope Neymar and co. can take some inspiration from João Gilberto's Aquarela do Brasil. It's not just the way Brazilians play, it's the way they marinate their football.

The Anglo contribution representing USA, Australia, Nigeria and England (which at the time of writing has sadly crashed out of the World Cup early ) comes from a female vocalist who was born in Ohio and has lived in Blighty for many years. Whoever said that Chrissie Hynde or The Pretenders symbolise "middle of the road" has never heard...  Middle Of The Road. Beautiful, like my recipe (sorry for the lack of modesty)

A Paris-based musical troupe that plays tango (representing Aregntina) is my next offering. Who knows? It could be the final in the World Cup on Sunday 13th July. In the meantime, have a first listen to Gotan's latest release, La Gloria. It reminds me of the tenderness of the lamb I cooked last Friday.

We round up tonight with a little number from Ghana. As I write the Black Stars are in with a chance, although remote. Let's hope they can go through, even if it means upsetting my Portuguese friends. Oh, well, you can never please everybody. In the meantime, enjoy Azonto by Fuse ODG feauring. Tiffany. Spicy.

Next  Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be posted on Sunday 29th June at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 22 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I had a very interesting experience recently. Interesting and a bit scary. I had to conduct some official business for which proof of identity was needed and without any second thoughts, I produced my driving licence. Sweet’eart, the Jamaican-accented lady told me, your licence expired three years ago. Dincha know? Cue jaw hitting the floor (mine), eyes wide open (hers) and much laughter and mirth (both). Three years! Just to give you an idea of why I was laughing so much here’s a quick rundown of what I have done during these three years and how my driving licence has been involved. I have rented cars in Italy and Cuba (2012 and 13 respectively) and I have been the main driver. That means that my (ex) driving licence has been photocopied and kept for their records. I have been one of the designated drivers of two minibuses hired by the school federation for which I used to work. Obviously, before being given the keys to the vehicles I had to submit a copy of my driving licence. And, of course, I have driven. I have driven everywhere. Cornwall in 2011, Shropshire, summer last year. But this is the best bit, or the scariest one. If I had been caught by the police with an out-of-date driving licence I could have been fined up to a thousand pounds.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Anyway, this column today is not about officials failing to realise that I held only a provisional licence for more than seven years and for three of those years this document was not valid (I have since renewed my licence, by the way, so if there’s a copper reading this, I’m all right now). What I would like to write about today is my love of driving.

But what if it's expired?
It is ironic that through this blog I promote a greener and cleaner way of living, both consciously and unconsciously. I strongly believe that our planet would be better with fewer cars around. At the same time, though, I can’t deny that I get a big kick out of being behind the wheel, on the open road, going on a long journey somewhere interesting.

I used to write a section called Road Songs years ago when I first started blogging. It was a way of romanticising what I saw as the “art of driving”. Unlike other people my early childhood perceptions were not shaped in the back of a car, but in the middle of a crowded bus in downtown Havana. So, recreational driving was not a part of my upbringing.

That is why as soon as I learnt how to drive and got my licence I became the weekend driver in the family (except for my daughter’s last two years in primary school when I used to do the school run every day). Weekend driving is different to its weekday counterpart. You don’t go somewhere because you have to clock in and out. You go places because it is a pleasure.

Road Songs was never about melodies that mentioned motorways and cul-de-sacs. As a section I wanted it to encompass the feeling that driving awakened in me. The beauty of a bend on the road, the exhilaration of letting the wheel slip through my fingers as I turned it, the art of braking. All these aspects of driving were included in this short-lived section. For all blogposts I sought clips that somehow encapsulated my feelings about being in control of car.

Whilst writing this section I came to the conclusion that perhaps my only gripe when it comes to driving in Britain, if gripe is the right word, is that the UK doesn’t boast iconic roads. Yes, we all know about the M25, but is it the same as Route 66 in the US? And would a motorway running from Scotland to south-eastern England inspire a Dylan-like British singer songwriter in the same way Route 61 inspired Bob to write Highway 61?

That doesn’t mean there’s no poetry in driving. There is, because the car symbolises freedom, if not, ask Bruce Springsteen who has made a whole musical career out of it. Even the shortest car journey has a certain sense of leave-taking about it. You are going somewhere and leaving something or someone behind. Even if it is for eight hours. Then, there’s also the interaction with the machine. The process of learning how to listen to your car’s engine, how to recognise its moans and complaints. That is why Roger Taylor, Queen’s drummer, wrote I am in Love with my Car, because he fell for his motor’s carburettor.

Yes, this column is a bit of a contradiction today. I am on two wheels five days a week. I can’t praise my bike enough. Especially because being a rusty, second-hand one, it’s gone beyond its sell-by and use-by date and it's still going, carrying me on its saddle. Yet, as soon as the weekend arrives I can’t wait to get inside my four-wheeler.  The episode with my (ex) driving licence made it clear. I’m in love with my car. Even if I might not have the valid documentation with me sometimes.

© 2014

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 25th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Arrival. Evening. Mass. Land. Country. Flag. Elation. Tiredness. Watch. Time. Queue. Check. Customs. Uniforms. Military. Green. Heat. Oi! Beckon. Loud. Command. Obey. Walk. Look. Ask. Look. Ask. Eyes. Searching. Assess. Papers. Order. Doubt. Frown. Wait. Toddler. Hunger. Toddler. Toilet. Toddler. Play. Toddler. Thirst. Spouse. Confusion.




Official. Officer. Rank. Uniform. Military. Green. Return. Passport. Talk. Continue. Walk. Luggage. Wait. Wait. Wait. Luggage. Ask. Encounter. Walk. Exit. Beckon. Gate. Beckon. Exit. Almost. Mother. Relative. Outside. Almost. Heat. Walk. Hurry. Walk. Hurry. Walk. Hand. Stop. Shoulder. Halt. Retrace. Questions. Bribe. Chiclets? Dollars? Chavitos? Anything? Female. Official. Officer. Rank. Uniform. Military. Green.




Wave. Look. Go. Gate. Exit. Air. Evening. Mother.


Welcome to Havana “Jose Martí” International Airport

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Music and Reflections”, to be published on Sunday 22nd June at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 15 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Read the following verbal exchange and let me know, dear reader, where you think it took place:

-          Just curious, was it any different for other theatre companies? I mean, how many of those were "purged"?

-          Sounds like a rhetorical question. Stalin, as one of history’s greatest sociopaths, targeted all aspects of society. However this article is about one particular theatre company and the author has a right to focus on that one alone.... Or are you trying to get to some other answer? Are you concerned about the use of the word "purged"?

-         It isn't. I know huge part of the intelligentsia were killed or sent to the camps, but I was wondering if this particular theatre was targeted more than the rest? I feel you are looking for something offensive in my question, I wonder why?

So, did it take place on the Tube, do you think? Or maybe I overheard it at one of the many currently sun-bathed, al fresco cafes in summery London? Or, even better, what if I might have chanced upon these two people talking to each other as they exited a theatre? After all, they are discussing this art form.

I’ll spare you the torture of guessing. The above exchange took place online, in the comments section, in a respectable, liberal, left-leaning newspaper. The article was about a Jewish theatre company that thrived during Stalin’s reign of terror but later fell into disgrace. This kind of feedback was left “below the line”.

“Below the line” is a different world. It is an internet-based world with its own rules (non-existing, unless enforced by moderators, also known as “mods”), its own population and its own philosophy. I also belong to this “below the line” world. I have also, I must add, been at the receiving end of impolite comments like the one above on the occasions when I have written for national newspapers or magazines.

The nastiest species of  the"below the line" world
Please, do not confuse this “below the line” world with that inhabited by online trolls. Trolls are a different species. When it comes to trolls, you know where you stand. They are nasty people whose only intention is to silence the other person, whether they are a writer, a campaigner or a politician. Sometimes, they even destroy lives, or attempt to. However, today’s column is more about the other side of online commentary, the one where there’s no swearing, just a rather sophisticated way of insulting someone. Notice how the second person in the example above (in bold) changed the tone of the conversation: Or are you trying to get to some other answer? Are you concerned about the use of the word "purged"? At no point the first person gives any indication that he or she (I’m going for a “he”) is debating the use of the word “purged”. It is all subjective. And nasty. The first person, however, far from walking away (in a metaphorical, virtual sense) faces down his opponent (I’m also plumping for a “he” here): I feel you are looking for something offensive in my question, I wonder why? Take that, you punk. You might as well tell him to step out. Only that he won’t be able to. You see, you both are arguing online.

In real life I doubt these two would talk to each other in this manner, especially if they have just met. It is true that there are aggressive people around who attack you verbally a couple of minutes after you have been introduced to one another. But that is not the norm. Then, why is it different online? There is a blog I visit regularly and which is written by a Spanish woman on which she posts photos of her travels. Once a man – and this time I know the poster was a man – left a comment making suggestions as to how many photos to upload and how. Although his comment was addressed at the blog owner and was on the surface good-intentioned, I felt quite cross. It was the language he used that made me so upset. He was so patronising and insulting. I could have done what the first person above did but I chose not to.

The “below the line” world, as I explained before, is not always the sort of misogynistic environment that shuts down debate. Bickering is more common in this world than rape threats. The irony is that we spend an awful long time in our lives telling children, including ours, not to bicker, to avoid unnecessary conflict, and there we are, asking someone if they are “concerned” about a particular issue without any evidence to back up our question.

The internet has brought so many benefits with it. It has also, unwittingly, given a platform to a nameless, anonymous and hard-to-identify community that feeds off this uncalled-for need for confrontation. Rather than being the insult-hurling troll or the misanthropic loser, this is the inhabitant of the “below the line” world; a sophisticated individual whose putdowns are not less dangerous and whose poisonous comments make sometimes the whole online writing experience a very unpleasant one. In the same way we ought to ignore the troll and not to feed it, let’s do the same with this other species. Brush them off.

© 2014

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 18th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About the Chinese and the English Language)

Surrender your weapons, my dear Chinese brethren and sisters. Your linguistic ones, I mean. Resistance is futile. Look, just a few months ago, I was waxing lyrical about the Spanish language and the way it was going to take over the US on this very forum. That time will come, I’m sure. But I might have overstated a tad bit the “when”.

As it turns out you, me ol' Sino chinas (did you see what I did there? If you’re from London or are familiar with Cockney rhyming slang you’ll understand), have gone the same way the rest of the world has gone for the last seventy or eighty years. Down the Anglicised rabbit-hole. And with no chance of leaving that mad hatter’s party. You can have a stab at answering the riddle “why is a raven like a writing desk?” but you will nevar (sic) be able to come up with the goods. Because, guess what, they will be in English.

According to a recent article in The Economist Chinese language purists are trying to keep the evil influence of the English lexicon out. Ha, good luck with that! Funny, isn’t it? Mao exterminated millions through famine and his so-called “cultural” revolution (very little if anything of the former but plenty of the latter). Last week we commemorated the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiannamen Square and the hundreds, if not thousands, who were murdered there. All these events and the way they look to the outside world should worry the business-conscious, modern China more and yet the threat to the socialist state comes, not from reform-minded students, but from a Germanic language whose most famous icon is a 16th century-born playwright, poet and actor. Even Shakespeare couldn’t have made it up.

The irony of the tirade in China's state-run People’s Daily against words such as “MBA”, “CEO” and “iPhone”, the examples given in the article, is that it fails to take into account the rapid economic growth China has undertaken in the last ten or twelve years and its consequences. This development has come at a cost. The more a country opens itself up to investment (whether it is state-sponsored capitalism or sweatshops) the bigger the risk of its losing some aspects of its culture. I know that from my own experience. Back when I used to live in Cuba there were people who adopted an accent that was half Cuban, half American just to impress and sound more knowledgeable, worldly and important. In reality they sounded like fakes, because they were fakes. The dichotomy in the Chinese situation is that you have a country competing for markets with the USA and Europe and yet they think that they can achieve this by coming up with their Sinified version of Twitter (which is blocked in China anyway).

Let’s say it again just in case it didn’t sink in first time around. English as we know it and speak it (especially the oral bit) won’t be our lingua franca forever. Eventually either another language will take over (I’m of the opinion it will be Spanish because of the large Latin population in the States and the fact that it will be the official language of the country in fifteen to twenty years) or English will develop into unrecognisable (to us now) variants depending on which country you are. Globlish is a good example of this. That means that no matter how much the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily rails against the pernicious influence of the evil empire’s lexicon, people in China, chiefly young people, will continue to use the English term “NBA” instead of wrecking their brains trying to come up with a Chinese equivalent. In the meantime they could do something constructive and attempt to translate and answer the riddle posed above: “why is a raven like a writing desk?

© 2014

Photo taken from The Economist

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 15th June at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 8 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What a week of contrasts this one has been. As I write I have a window open on my browser with a clip of 89-year-old Jock Hutton, veteran of the allied invasion of France, parachuting himself (whilst strapped to a member of the Red Devils) into the same field he landed in 70 years ago. In another window, I have a website showing me images of Bob Bergdahl whose son, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was held captive by the Taliban for five years. On 31st May Bowe was released as part of a deal that included five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

As I mentioned before, this has been a week of contrasts.

To Sergeant Bowe’s story first, because his odyssey is not straightforward. You might think that being a prisoner of the monstrous Taliban is bad enough. But worse than that apparently is the suspicion that hovers now over the young officer. Joy over his release was followed days later by allegations that Bowe had deserted his post and compromised the safety of his army colleagues. If true the full weight of the military justice system might fall upon him on his return to the US.

But what if Hitler had never happened?
Now analyse this situation against the background of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-day. I am not for a minute suggesting that both cases are the same, not even similar, but the reaction to both reveals the strange attitudes some of us sometimes adopt towards war.

D-day seems at first sight to be pretty clear-cut. There was an enemy, Nazi Germany, there was an evil man, Hitler, and there was evidence of his evil acts, i.e., occupied territories and casualties, concentration camps and a pervasive, anti-Semitic and racist ideology which attempted to justify Hitler’s barbaric war. However, on reflecting on D-day I look at the reasons why 89-year-old Jock Hutton found himself being parachuted into Normandy seventy years ago rather than looking merely at his act of bravery. Had Hitler been not appeased by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Soviet Union’s very own butcher Joseph Stalin there would not have been any invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia and therefore no D-day to commemorate. Had Germany not been isolated after the First World War, Hitler would have probably gone down in history as a mediocre artist and not as the man who oversaw one of the most heinous crimes against humanity. Likewise, had George Bush not sent troops into Afghanistan and two years later into Iraq (with the help of one Tony Blair) it is very likely that Sergeant Bowe would not have been captured by the Taliban and therefore all these allegations of treason and desertion would not have come up.

When it comes to the theatre of war we like to think of its dramatis personae in terms of heroes and villains. The reality of it is, sadly, more nuanced and less obvious. This is not cheap pacifism on my part but pragmatism. I believe that D-day was necessary at the time. Same with the sacrifice made by Soviet troops during the battle of Leningrad and the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives there. Is then, unpatriotic to think that there could be ways to avoid such carnage again?

If you look at most wars, they were, still are, unnecessary. Centuries ago and up until the First World War, the main reason for them to be waged was the acquisition of (new) territories and the subjugation of their native populations for the purpose of cheap labour. Otherwise known as slavery. This happened in most continents. The First World War changed that, not because it wasn’t about conquest – it was! – but  because it also became a laboratory for the nascent arms industry to test its latest toys. The trend has continued. Nowadays, wars are more often fought as a way to experiment with new weapons. It is difficult to see how the likes of Sergeant Bowe can be motivated by the same lofty ideals as Jock Hutton when the reasons for them to be in places like Afghanistan are not as clear-cut as they were for those who defended Europe against the real danger of Nazism seventy years ago.

Unchaperoned thoughts like mine invite all kind of responses, especially in a year of centenaries. I admit that I am biased against war. This attitude has its genesis in my place of birth and nationality and the threats that we, as a country, have faced on countless occasions, mainly from the mighty neighbour in the North. However my reflections today owe less to the fact that hostilities between nations do occasionally break out (justifiably or not) and more to the different ways we react towards the likes of Sergeant Bowe and D-day veteran Jock Hutton. I don't think there's a soldier out there right now who is looking forward to having a "a graveyard as a friend", as Elton John reminds us in the clip below.  Let us hope that the next time a new script for the theatre of war is written, we think first and foremost of cause and effect, the cost - especially in human lives - of the mise en scène and bin the damned manuscript. Better still, just burn it.

© 2014

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 11th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Not gone, never gone
If you were to freeze halfway through the poem Still I Rise and try to define its significance there and then you would be lost in a sea of superlatives. And each one of these superlatives would be as good as if not better than the one you used before: Does my haughtiness offend you?/Don’t you take it awful hard/’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines/Diggin’ in my own backyard. Let those lines slip off your tongue. Let those lines be the slogan on your T-shirt the next morning. Clad in the type of language that shouts out: I’m proud and I’m saying it out loud! Maya Angelou’s anthemic verses have a reach beyond gender, race, sexual orientation, age, creed and (dis)ability.

Maya Angelou died last 28th May. I say “died”. What I really meant was that her body stopped moving, human functions such as breathing, laughing, crying, talking and smelling stopped happening. Maya, however, has not died. How can she? When even non-native English-speaking blokes like me have adopted Phenomenal Woman as one of their favourite incantations? A magical way to scare away the evil spirits of pessimism, machismo and bigotry.

If I were to freeze the moment when I discovered Maya I would have to take you back seventeen years. You and I would have to get on a DeLoran-like time machine and go back to the summer of 1997. Then you would see a twenty-five, almost twenty-six year-old man making his way to a flat in the leafy neighbourhood of Playa. That’s where one of his friends lives. Follow him now leaving his friend’s house with a letter in his hand. Watch him ripping the letter open (it’s from his then-girlfriend, now wife) whilst keeping an eye on the uneven pavement. Look at how he cuts across back streets, jumping over puddles of dirty water streaming its way downhill. And now, see his face. Freeze this frame for it will become a long-lasting memory in his life. His girlfriend is pregnant with their first child, she is in London and he is in Havana. She has included a poem by a poet of whom he has never heard before. Yet, from the word go he feels as if this poet has just dispossessed him of his armour, removed his mask, bared his soul. The opening lines go like this: You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise. Who is she? How dare she?  How does she know...? Questions, questions, questions. But all is in vain. In the presence of greatness we all become momentarily pious. This one altar, we don’t mind worshipping to. This is the altar steeped in antiquity and like a universal language that has been passed down from generation to generation, a language that respects no linguistic barriers (all foreigners welcome!), this altar summons those who give rationality the heave-ho and adopt feeling as their travelling companion in the ocean of Poetry.

If I were to freeze that moment you would see red ice-cold eyes, rock-solid tears caught mid-journey down my visage. That moment would be a snapshot of a discovery. The discovery of a new (at least to me) voice, one who sings out verses that sound as if they have been made of the same material as the leather of a drum or the bow of a fiddle.  Still I Rise ends in what I can only describe as a rapturous, symphonic crescendo. Each preceding stanza is a steady increase in the rhythm, a gradual build-up towards the end: oil wells pumping, hopes springing high, diamonds at the meeting of my thighs.

Maya Angelou did not die last 28th May. She is still asking people to rise. And I, for one, Maya, will never stop doing that.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th June (GMT)

Sunday 1 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I once was called an f***ing Cuban n****r. That was about twelve or thirteen years ago when I still worked as a tour-operator in West Hampstead, London. I didn’t bother to file in a complaint. There was only another witness in the room and she was a friend of the person who had insulted me. About a decade before that a friend of mine (or someone I considered to be my friend) called me a “negro de mierda” whilst we were doing our work experience in the Cuban countryside (the phrase translates roughly as f***ing n****r into English because there’s no direct equivalent to the “n” word in Spanish). On both occasions the reason for the racist outbursts was the same: I was the person in command asking someone nicely to get on with their work. In the latter case I had to rouse my “friend” from a deep, post-lunch snooze. I did it ever so gently and yet I still got racially abused.

However, these two examples – amongst a few others – have never been the worst type of racism I have faced in my life. As bad as they sound I knew what to expect from these two racist bigots. My ex-colleague had already shown her (voluntary) ignorance in various subjects to do with race and culture. In the case of my friend who turned out not to be a real friend, there were signs that seemed to indicate that a situation like that would occur one day. I chose to brush off those signs. But no, that was certainly not the worst type of racism I have come across. The worst type has often arrived unannounced and unbidden. It is the kind that comes wrapped in gift paper with little, cute, light-blue laced-up notes that read: “Oh, you can speak four languages! I would have never thought it. I don’t mean to be... uh, err, rac... awkward, but you just don’t look like a polyglot”. Or: “oh, you like classical music? I don’t know why but I had you down more as a hip hop/rap type of guy”. Hmmm... Yep, I love the Tribe (that’s A Tribe Called Quest, by the way) but... I also listen to... oh, well, why do I bother? The other person has cleared.

That is why I wasn’t surprised about the recent findings by a survey conducted by the British Social Attitudes which showed that the percentage of people who describe themselves as prejudiced had risen. What I was surprised about was that people still equate racism to racial prejudice.

But should it not read: why racism?
What my ex-colleague did to me was racist. What my former friend did to me was racist. Pure and simple. They based their outbursts on nothing more than an illogical and ignorant belief that the person standing in front of them, asking them to carry on with their work, had no right to do so. This belief was probably rooted in some kind of colour hierarchy that in their bigoted heads had me either close to or at the bottom of it. However, the well-meaning folk who churn out phrases such as the ones I mentioned before operate under a different type of mindset. It’s a pre-arranged, pre-labelled mindset that believes that we all fit into a category. This category is normally determined by traits such as culture, creed, sexual orientation, gender, age and, of course, skin colour. That’s how racial prejudice usually starts. The assumption, for instance, that a white person can’t dance salsa because she/he has two left feet and no sense of rhythm, whereas for a black or mixed race person, especially one from a “hot” country, salsa (please, replace salsa with any other “exotic” dance: samba, calypso, reggae, cumbia) is as natural as breathing. It follows then that the white person is better equipped for other activities, perhaps of a more intellectual nature whilst her/his dark-skinned counterpart is more suitable for the physical ones.

I wasn’t surprised about the figures thrown up by this survey but then, again, the UK is not alone in this phenomenon. Wherever there’s been racial mix and migration, you will come across a similar situation. And let’s be fair, at least Brits are honest enough to acknowledge that racial prejudices are still rife in our country less than two years after the London Olympics, with the ubiquitously beaming faces of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, had somehow managed to talk people into believing (How? Why?) that we had entered a post-racial era in Great Britain.

When analysing the BSA survey there was one element that caught my attention: once again the finger is being pointed at white van man. To quote from the article linked to above: “Older men in economically deprived areas are most likely to admit to racial prejudice”. Well, as much as I hate their bigotry, these men are being honest. Again, that word, honest. Honesty.  Precisely what is usually missing from any debate about race and racism.

If we want to lessen the impact of racial prejudice on society (notice the word “lessen”, not “get rid of”. Sadly, I don’t think we can get rid of racial prejudice) we need to start acknowledging some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and that is not easy. Ore Oduba is one of BBC Breakfast News sports presenters. I still remember the first time I saw him on telly: I almost had a heart attack. So used I was to the likes of Sally Nugent, Chris Hollins and Mike Bushell (all white) reporting on sports events that I’d forgot that black people can also do sports in front of a camera as well as they can do it on the football pitch or running track. This is the assumption to which I referred to before. Remove that barrier and many of the walls erected as a consequence of racial prejudice will come down like domino tiles.

Two questions arise from my theory. Who is responsible for this change? And are those affected by racial prejudice passive victims? The answer to the first question is that as much as we want to change the system and make black and Asian people more visible, we still depend on the willingness of a channel controller or magazine editor to take the chance. Media outlets, politics and the publishing industry, to mention three prominent sectors, work on what I call “fixed cultural mindset”. A “fixed cultural mindset”, broadly speaking, is the type of thinking we develop very early in life and which, under the influence of family, friends and society in general, leads us to think in stereotypes. If we set our minds to believe the notion that black boys struggle with reading more than any other ethnic group, for instance, it follows that if we hear of someone discussing the legacy of the late Irish writer James Joyce in contemporary literature on a late-night book show we will immediately imagine the speaker as a white person as opposed to someone who is darker than blue, to quote Curtis Mayfield. This, to me, is the real story in the BSA survey. Not white van man being racist (that’s still relevant and real enough to merit attention), but white, middle-class, middle-aged man being racially prejudiced. We need to engage the former as much as the latter. But it is harder to get the latter to commit to our cause by dint of his pole position in society. Some people might suggest affirmative action or positive discrimination. I can see their point but there are so many minuses and so few pluses in that approach. For starters, how long should positive discrimination last? And are we not risking alienating those who are on our side by asking them to provide us with crumbs from the big table ad infinitum?

As for the second question, a “fixed cultural mindset” is not just the province of those with racial prejudices but also of those who are at the receiving end of these racial prejudices. The person discussing Joyce on that late-night book show might turn out to be a black academic; however the likelihood is that she/he will not be thought of as black enough by their own community. Only because on talking about the legacy of an Irish writer they are doing something that is not considered to be black or pertaining to the black culture. Whatever the elements of this so-called black culture are, a self-selected group has already chosen them. What they seem to forget is that human culture is above black culture, gay culture, Latin culture or Irish culture. This “that ain’t black” attitude plays in the hands of the (mainly white) CEOs, managing directors, party leaders and editors-in-chief who, then, do not have to worry about demographics, who watches what and what effect this policy will have on this or that group, because, guess what, we have done the job for them. I’m sure that the figure of 26% in the survey (professional employers and managers who say they have some level of prejudice) is much higher. But, because overt racism as a sort of career move leads most of the time towards professional suicide nowadays (unless you are Jeremy Clarkson, of course, who only gets a slap on the wrist from Auntie), they opt for a softer (and my less cynical self would like to believe unconscious and unintentional) form of prejudice. Instead of calling someone an f***ing Cuban n****r, they choose to play him salsa because, after all, does he really understand classical music?

This post could go on forever. I haven’t even mentioned historical, political and socioeconomic factors that have an impact on racial prejudice. To me the real question from that survey is not whether the UK is more racially prejudiced or not, but why. That, sadly, is not a question whose answer we are desperate to provide any time soon.

© 2014

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Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 4th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


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